Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 5

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Having examined the statements of the Reformer most celebrated for his doctrine, we may now turn to the very different views of Bellarmine, the most famous of those who have written on the Romanist side, with the authoritative statements of the Council of Trent in their Decrees and Canons, and yet more fully in their Catechism. To the discussion of our text the Cardinal devotes the entire chapter xiii., book iv., of his third general controversy—that about Christ (Disput. R. Bellarmini Pol. Tom. I, pp. 176-178, Col. Agr. 1615). It may strike some as remarkable that the text is not cited by him to prove purgatory, but only the descent of Christ's soul to hell; and the more so as the proofs of purgatory from the New Testament are lamentably defective and manifestly forced. But this able controversalist justly avoided the passage as evidence for purgatory; for nothing would suit Romish ideas less than preaching, least of all Christ's preaching, to souls there. Wholly different is their scheme, which distinguishes purgatory from limbus patrum.1
Purgatory according to Tridentine doctrine is a penal fire to satisfy for the remains of sin in the righteous, a place of punishment where justified souls in general suffer for a time before they go to heaven; for, as they teach, souls dying in mortal sin go to hell, while on the other hand martyrs and adults dying immediately after baptism go to heaven. Thus, in the first part, art. v. § iv.—vi. of the Catechism, they distinguish hell into (1) the place where the damned are forever punished, (2) the fire of purgatory where the souls of the pious suffer torture in expiation for a definite time, and (3) the receptacle in which the souls of saints before Christ's advent were received, and, exempt from any pain and sustained by the blessed hope of redemption, dwelt there in peace. It is true that this last statement does not cohere with the language of § 8 that the fathers were tortured in suspense while waiting for glory: but when was error really consistent? Again, in § 10 they confess that Old Testament saints, like those of the New, not only were in limbus as we have seen, that is, in the bosom of Abraham, but also might need the satisfaction of the ire of purgatory for their venial sins, and for whatever remained of the temporal punishment due for mortal sins though forgiven.
It is plain therefore that it is ignorance of their own doctrine or deceit for a Romanist to cite our text for purgatory.2 Their most authoritative teaching is that the apostle speaks of the place once occupied by the Old Testament saints before Christ came and took them to heaven. Limbus patrum is therefore without a tenant, and useless for any practical purpose now. Purgatory is far otherwise, according to their best instructed doctors; though why it should be styled “purgatory” does not clearly or satisfactorily appear, for there is only the endurance of penalty, and no real purging whatever. How opposed to the truth and grace of God! By Christ all that believe are justified from all things and have life, eternal life, in Him. They are dead with Christ from sin; crucified with Him, yet they live of a new life, not the first Adam life, but Christ living in them, dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Hence sin is not to reign in their mortal body. They are under not law but grace; and, living in the Spirit, they have to walk in the Spirit; but if one sin, we have an advocate with the Father, and the washing of water by the word is made good to us by the Spirit in answer to Christ's intercession when we are defiled in any way.
But Romanism ignores and destroys the entire groundwork of the gospel, and its privileges as applied now to the believer. They preach as if Christ was such an one as themselves; they reason as if His blood had no more efficacy than a bull's or a goat's; their thoughts of sin are as human as of the Savior and of His work. Of a real communication of life through faith, of a new and spiritual nature which the believer has in receiving Christ, they have no notion; for if they saw either life or redemption as scripture puts them, there could be no place for purgatory. There is a process of cleansing which goes on in the believer while he passes through this defiling world, that the practical state may correspond with the standing, with life in Christ and full remission of sins by His blood. But when the Christian departs from this life, he departs to be with Christ, and there is no need of cleansing more, as only the new and holy life remains, Romanism sets up the veil of Judaism again, undoing laboriously the infinite blessing of a known reconciliation with God founded on atonement, and consequently putting those who bear the Lord's name outside in the court, in darkness, doubt, and uncertainty. It is the unbelief of nature, usurping the place of the gospel, a mere round of rites which flatter the flesh and can never clear the conscience: and no wonder, because the true light which now shines is intercepted and the power of redemption is wholly denied. Hence it is really heathenism clothed with Jewish forms, a return of the Gentiles in Christendom to the weak and beggarly elements to which they desire to be again in bondage. It is the more guilty, because it is a going back to old darkness after God's revelation of Himself as a Savior in Christ, a churlish turning away from the feast of divine love and light where the Father imparts His joy in goodness, saving the worst and to the uttermost, let who will stay without and boast of their own ways to His dishonor.
But enough of the fabulous purgatory: our business is with B.'s explanation of our text. The first exposition noticed is that of Augustine, who applied it to the preaching of Noah by the Spirit of Christ to the men of that day. The chief defect in it is that the prison is held to be the mortal body, instead of seeing that έν φ. (“in prison") refers to their subsequent state when alone also they could be properly designated as πνεὐμασιν or “spirits.”
The Cardinal apologizes for refuting S. Augustine. No doubt it is awkward to such as start with the Vincentian canon of tradition, “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus:” and the rather when the Father to be refuted is the greatest light of the Western church. It is pleaded however that A. himself confesses he had not understood the passage and asks for cause to be shown why it should refer to hell (or hades). As if the Father then not only permitted but himself desired it, B. proceeds to his task.3
His first argument is the common opinion of the Fathers in opposition; Clement, Alex., Atban. Epiphan., and Cyril, Hilary, Ambrose, Ruffin, and Oec. being all alluded to as inferring hence Christ's descent to the spirits in hell. He also points to the occurrence of an alleged citation of Isaiah to a similar effect in Justin M. and Irenaeus. But we may reserve the views of the early ecclesiastical writers to a later moment when they will come fully before us.4
The second objection is that Christ is said to have gone in spirit to preach to spirits. The spirit which is here distinguished against flesh seems as if it could not possibly mean anything else than the soul, says B. Not therefore in His divinity only but in His soul did the Lord go and preach to the spirits. Now this, if it were the real intimation, would have incomparably greater weight for the Christian than the opinions of the Fathers were they ever so unanimous. But it is precisely what I have shown the best authorities for the critically correct text of the epistle reject. If the article of the vulgarly received text before πνεύματι possessed any real weight of evidence, the phrase might well if not certainly convey the sense of Christ's spirit as man; but all the copies of value concur in the anarthrous form, which cannot bear the meaning for which B. contends. As the apostle wrote, it is the character of Christ's quickening when He rose from the dead. The Holy Spirit beyond a doubt was the agent; but this is presented in the shape of manner, and therefore the article is absent; whereas it must have been present if the intention had been to present the case as B. imagines. The more carefully the language is examined, the more certain it is that the soul of Christ cannot be here contemplated.
Again, Augustine had good ground to say that ζ. δὶ πν. could not apply to the soul of Christ; and B. tries in vain to answer by citing 1 Sam. 27:99And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel, and returned, and came to Achish. (1 Samuel 27:9); 2 Sam. 8:22And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David's servants, and brought gifts. (2 Samuel 8:2); and Acts 7:1919The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live. (Acts 7:19); for this is a confusion of ζωογονέω or ζωγρέω with ζωοποιέω. It is unfounded therefore to say that Peter meant that Christ's soul could not be slain, but remained alive in His triumphant work over hell. He really says and meant that Christ was brought to life; and all efforts to shake the truth will only confirm it before all competent judges. Our clever theologian is decidedly feeble in questions of a philological kind.5
There is no force in the third argument, which is that the expression, “went and preached,” can properly apply to the soul, not to Christ's divinity. It is a question of what is called in 1 Peter 1:1111Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. (1 Peter 1:11) “the Spirit of Christ,” which certainly wrought in the prophets and among the rest in Noah, who is also formally styled “a preacher of righteousness” in the second epistle. There is no more reason why in this place πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυζεν should be a literal change of place in Christ personally, than ἐλθὼν εὐηγγελίσατο in Eph. 2:1717And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. (Ephesians 2:17). We are dealing with historical matter equally in both passages; but figure is excluded in neither; and in fact there is the strongest analogy between the figures employed by both. The one illustrates the other. There is a manifestly distinct precision of phrase where a literal going of Christ is intended, as in verse 22 where we read π. εἰς οὐρανὁν. It might have been safely inferred here if the apostle had written π. εἰς ᾄδου6
It is granted that the fourth argument of the Cardinal lies fairly against a faulty detail in the view of Augustine; for we cannot by “spirits in prison” rightly understand living men. Such a description applies only to persons in their disembodied state. There is no ground however to suppose that the preaching was then and there more than in chapter iv. 6 where we are told that “to dead men also was the gospel preached,” but of course while they were alive, not after they died, as some strangely conceive, without the smallest warrant from the words employed, and contrary to the plain drift of universal scripture on this point elsewhere. It is not correct to suppose, as is often assumed, that Peter speaks here of the same persons as dead whom he had described in the context as the spirits in prison. He contemplates here not the generation that refused righteous warning before the flood, but such of the dead in times past as had the promises presented to them, with the effect of putting all under the responsibility of being judged as men in flesh, while those who heeded the word, being by grace quickened, lived according to God in spirit. The language of the apostle perfectly agrees with his own teaching throughout the epistle, as well as his immediately precedent warning of the Lord's readiness to judge quick and dead, no less than the witness in baptism to His saving grace. The notion of preaching after death is a strange doctrine, out of harmony with the context, and openly, irreconcilably, opposed to scripture in general. There is therefore no need here to adopt the Augustinian fancy of “dead” meaning dead in trespasses and sins, any more than to explain “the spirits in prison” of souls shut up in flesh and the darkness of ignorance as if in a prison. But that the men were dead when the glad tidings were announced to them is not what the apostle says; still less that it was Christ who preached thus, or that dead men spoken of in such broad terms are the same as those formerly disobedient when the long-suffering of God was awaiting in Noah's day. The exegesis which indulges in such assumptions as these seems justly open to the charge of having no longer any fixed rule. But thanks be to God! scripture refuses everything of the sort, and cannot be broken.7
B.'s fifth objection is, that, if the passage be understood of the preaching in the days of Noah, it does not appear to what end that account is inserted here. For how hang together, that Christ was put to death in flesh, but quickened (or as he says remained alive) in spirit, and therefore God formerly preached to men by Noah? But if we understand it of the descent to hell, all is consistent. For Peter, wishing to show that Christ in suffering and death remained alive, proves it as to His soul, because at that time His soul went to hell and preached to the spirits shut up in prison.8 Now the fact on the contrary is that the reference to Noah's preaching is highly relevant to the purpose in hand. For the apostle is insisting on the certainty of divine government, whatever the long-suffering of God in bearing with men's hostility to His people and opposition to His testimony. His own people are called to walk with a good conscience in grace, suffering for righteousness, and for doing good, not ill. How touching the reason! Christ once suffered for sins: let this suffice. It was His grace to suffer thus to the full, His glory to suffer thus exclusively, just for unjust, in order that He might bring us to God. It is ours to suffer for good, for righteousness: never should it be for faults and sins: this was His work for us when unjust, in which He was put to death in flesh but quickened in Spirit.
The outer life of Jesus closed in suffering for our sins, the days of His flesh wherein He offered up both supplications and entreaties to Him who was able to save Him out of death, with strong crying and tears. His resurrection was no question of external display of power, but characteristically of the Spirit, and hence unseen and unknown by the world. This was of all things most strange to the Jewish mind, which associated with the Messiah the manifestation of an energy overwhelming to all adversaries. Never was such a victory over Satan even in his last stronghold of death as Christ's resurrection; but He was made alive in no such way as instantly to put down the Roman oppressor, and expel the old serpent, and exalt restored Israel, and humble the haughty Gentiles, and deliver all creation. All this and much more must yet be to the praise of the glory of divine grace; but He was quickened in Spirit. Doubtless divine energy of the highest kind wrought here, but it was distinctively in the Spirit; and hence He who was thus raised, though most truly a risen man, capable of eating and drinking, though needing no food, capable of being handled and felt, though equally able to pass through closed doors, to appear in another form, to vanish out of sight and to ascend to heaven, was seen only of chosen witnesses, not as by and by He will be by every eye.
In knowledge this ran so counter to ordinary Jewish expectation that the apostle reminds his readers of that which might help them to juster thoughts of God's ways before the day comes when judgment will silence all gainsayers. It was no new thing for the Spirit of Christ to testify. He, as we have already been told, He who in the prophets had pointed out beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow, preached in Noah's days. The patience of God in testimony sounded strange to the Jew. Yet there it was in the first book of the law: “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” —the very scripture which it would appear the apostle had before his mind's eye when inspired to write “in which [Spirit] he went and preached to the spirits in prison once disobedient when the longsuffering of God was waiting in Noah's days.” Now also as then it is a season of testimony and long-suffering before the judgment shall be executed at the appearing of Jesus. If the Spirit strove of old, surely it was not less now; if the work of God was wrought in the Spirit, proclaimed and received in the Spirit, not yet in a visible and indisputable power before which all the world must bow, it was just so in the most marked season of testimony before the most marked judgment on all mankind which the ancient oracles attest. Hence the exceeding appositeness of the allusion to Noah's days when the Spirit strove but would not always, for the flood was then at hand which must as it did surprise and take away those who stumbled at the word being disobedient. It was guilty then for the sons of Adam to slight the preaching: how much more so in the seed of Abraham now, who had before them that ancient warning, with an incomparably fuller testimony in the promises fulfilled though not yet manifested before the world!
The attentive student of scripture may thus see the admirable force and pertinence of πωεύματι ὲν ᾧ καῖ τ. ἐν φ. πν. πορ. ἐκήρ., especially as connected with the account given in Gen. 6 which the Holy Spirit here interweaves in the instruction for those addressed. There is no such statement as that Christ's Spirit was the subject, recipient, or vehicle of restored life, for this would require the article to convey such a sense; and were the article genuine and such a sense necessarily taught, it is hard to see how one who held to the text thence resulting could deny the monstrous inference that His spirit had previously died—at least, if the case connected had been the direct complement, not the indirect. It is also a manifest oversight to contend, as has been done, that the use of the word πνεὐμασιν, connecting έν ᾧ (πνεύματι) our Lord’s state with the state of those to whom He preached, is a crowning objection to the view here advocated; for it is certain that ζωοποιηθεὶς δὲ πν. describes the resurrection of Christ, not His separate state, and that the anarthrous form of πν. is decisive against the idea of its being His spirit as man, as is supposed in every form of the hypothesis that Christ descended to preach to separate spirits. No such connection then is in the passage: but attention is drawn to the character of Christ's resurrection as of the Spirit, bound up with His testimony and presence now known in Christianity instead of the visible power and glory of the kingdom which Israel looked for. The Spirit is emphatic as giving character to the quickening, not Sis spirit as the subject or vehicle of restored life; and then it is added that in virtue, or in the power, of this, έν ᾧ, He went and preached to the spirits in prison once on a time disobedient when the longsuffering of God was waiting in Noah's days, while an ark was in preparation. There was no external demonstration of divine power then, but a testimony of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ; and all who despised it proved the value of the warning too late in their own destruction; and their spirits are imprisoned till the judgment of the dead declare afresh and forever the awful consequences of despising God's word. So it will assuredly be with all who, preoccupied with Messianic glory according to Jewish feeling, scorn the Spirit of Christ that now warns the world of coming judgment, and mock a presence of Christ which is only known in spirit.
Another point of analogy singled out from the tale of old and applied now is the fewness of those saved as meeting the taunts of those who looked for universal homage to the Messiah reigning and could not understand the hidden glory of One who believed in by a few bears with masses of unbelief till He comes in judgment.
But one can easily discern why all these analogies between the testimony in Noah and that under Christianity should escape the Cardinal, who finds more congenial aliment in the reveries of imagination as to the descent of Christ to hades than in the solemn and sober realities of a Christian's walk and witness, well nigh forgotten in Christendom. The dark source, whether Popish or Patristic, of Bishop Horsley's reasoning will not have escaped the reader. For he too, like Bellarmine, draws from this strikingly suggestive passage little more than the impotent conclusion that Christ remained alive in His passion and death! proved by His soul's descent and preaching to the spirits below. It is needless to expose the poverty of an interpretation which yields so wretched a harvest as compared with the rich and varied lessons flowing from the passage when understood in itself and in its connection with the Old Testament history alluded to.
Augustine had objected9 to the deduction of Christ's descent to hades, from this passage, (1) that consequently He would preach only to the unbelievers at the time of the flood; and (2) that, Abraham's bosom being distinct from hades, such a preaching would lead to the notion of converting the damned. Bellarmine (1) retorts with the question why Christ should be said to preach in Noah's days rather than in those of Abraham and other patriarchs or even of all other men, and (2) answers that the preaching of Christ in hell was not to convert infidels but only to announce great joy to pious souls in redemption now completed, Abraham's bosom being viewed as part of hades by Augustine himself like all other fathers. But the reader will have seen that B. is quite wrong and A. much more right as to both points. The text characterizes the imprisoned spirits as having been formerly disobedient without a trace of their subsequent repentance or piety, the announcement of great joy being a pure fiction for which the passage gives no warrant but rather as we read it plain intimations to the contrary. Not a word in scripture intimates that those on whom the flood came were believers but unbelievers, not a hint that they repented at last or that their souls were saved, though their bodies perished, let Jerome teach what he may. Their spirits are said to be in prison, in full contrast with Abraham's bosom or paradise; they are kept there for judgment like angels that sinned of old, with whom indeed the apostle classes them in the second chapter of his second epistle; and no wonder, for he characterizes them as a world of ungodly men. Are these then the pious souls to whom above all others the Lord descended to announce the great joy of His completed redemption? It will be observed by those who weigh God's word, apart from tradition, that not a thought appears in the passage of delivering the spirits from prison, any more than of translating them to heaven. This would be singular on the supposition of such a descent; for it is evident that, were the patristic idea true, it would be more in keeping with Christ's presence there to speak, not of preaching in hades, but of translating the saints thence gloriously as the fruit of His victory over Satan.
“Respondeo, primam objectionem posse retorqueri. Nam etiam non apparet ratio cur dicat Petrus Christum in diebus Noe praedicasse potius quam in diebus Abraham etaliorum patriarch-orum vel etiam aliorum omnium hominum. Dico praeterea, Christum praedicasse in inferno omnibus bonis spiritibus, sed nominatim fuisse expressos illos qui fuerunt in diebus Noe increduli, quia de illis erat majus dubium an essent salvi nec ne, cum puniti fuerint a Deo et submersi aquis diluvii. Indicat ergo his Petrus etiam ex illis ineredulis fuisse aliquos qui etiam in fine poenitentiam egerint, et licet quantum ad corpus perierinf, tamen quantum ad animam salvi faerint(quod etiam Hieronymus docet in quaestionibus Hebraicis in Genes, tractans illud cap. 6. Non permanebit spiritus mens in homine, &c). Ubi dicit Deum punivisse multos eorum temporaliter aquis diluvii, ne deberet cos punire in gehenna in aeternum. Et hunc etiam sensum videntur facere ilia verba cap. 4: Idea mortuis et praedicatum est evangelium, ut judicentur quidem secundum homines in carne, vivant autem secundum Deum spiritu; id est, ut secundum homines ex-terius judicentur carne, id est, damnati existimentur humano judicio, quia corpora eorum aquis necata fuerunt, tamen vivant spiritu secundum Deum, id est, animae eorum salvae sint apud Deum.
“Ad secundam dico, ipsnm Augustinum postea cognovisse sinum Abrahae fuisse in inferno, ut patet ex tractatu in Psal. 85 et lib. 20 de civ. Dei, ca. 15. que sententia est omnium patrum et totius ecclesiae. Dico igitur.praedicationem Christi in inferno non fuisse ad convertendos infideles, sed fuisse solum ad annun-ciationem gaudii magni piis animabus, quibus annunciavit completam esse redemptionem, ut intelligerent so jam indo liberandas et tempore suo etiam corpora rccepturas. Atque haec de expositione sancti Augustini quam refutavimus, sequuti mentem ejus, non verba.")
The remarks of Bellarmine on Beza's modification of the Augustinian view and on Calvin's ideas do not claim any special notice here, whatever is true in them having been already anticipated, I believe.